By Michael Robinson
Chair, ALA-IFC Privacy Subcommittee
(Note: This is the first post in a week-long online forum discussing how librarians, educators, and society can respect and defend students’ and minors’ privacy. Stop by chooseprivacyweek.org each day to read each contributor’s article and check out our page of resources on student and minors’ privacy.)
Last year when writing about Choose Privacy Week I said that it feels like online privacy has taken a step closer to center stage in libraryland. This year I think it has joined the center stage at least in terms of intellectual freedom and library technology issues. At the recent Public Library Association conference in Denver, the two sessions focused on intellectual freedom were both on privacy topics. At our state library conference earlier this year in Fairbanks, I participated on a panel session entitled To Serve and Protect: Intellectual Freedom and Privacy Issues in School Libraries. The session was well attended with a lively discussion among the panelists and the audience. Before the session the panelists were a little concerned that we had devised only seven questions to guide the discussion. It turned out that we only had time for two questions (one on the privacy expectations of students) because the discussion was so rich. Almost everyone in the audience had a story or a question or a point of view that they wanted to share.
My hope is that this year’s Choose Privacy Week will elicit a similar level of discussion. If the roster of bloggers we have lined up for this week is any indication, I am sure that it will. The ease with which we were able to recruit high-calibre writers on a range of topics was due to this year’s theme (“Respect Me, Respect My Privacy”) focusing on library privacy issues for students and minors. This is a complex theme that requires thoughtful consideration.
Students and minors that use the library face all of the potential threats to the privacy of their reading habits and intellectual activities that adult patrons face–government surveillance, commercial tracking, data sharing, library metrics, etc. Students also face an environment where the educational establishment (teachers, school administrators, commercial service providers) is working to create a system of continuous assessment and oversight to track almost all aspects of the student’s online educational activities. Many schools are inviting parents and guardians to participate in this oversight. Parents can login to a school website to see what their student is having for lunch, if they are completing their homework assignments, etc. It is a logical next step to include library usage in this parental oversight. At least one school district has already done so by providing a portal where parents can see the book that their child has checked out from the library.
Libraries have traditionally protected patron privacy by creating policies and practices that rely on First Amendment rights (free inquiry as a component of free speech) and 4th Amendment rights (right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure) as well as applicable state laws on the confidentiality of library records. In the case of students and minors, these protections are somewhat undermined by federal legislation (FERPA and COPPA) which give educators broad leeway in their use of educational records for internal purposes (like assessment) and give parents oversight of their child’s educational records and online activities when they are minors. The age of the minor has a bearing on this as well. There are basic constitutional rights that all minors have (equal protection, due process) but other rights (such as free speech) are acquired progressively as they age and mature. The courts have recognized the need for minors to develop their intellect through free expression and free inquiry as they become adults.
Many school libraries have privacy policies regarding access to library records that are focused on the use of physical books which is commendable. But these policies are inadequate to deal with the threats to privacy in an age when vendors can track how fast people read an e-book or if they even finish it. It is imperative that we carve out a place in the online world for some inquiry that is free from tracking or surveillance. This is especially true for children as they mature into young adults who are establishing their own identity and worldview.
A good first step to defending the privacy rights of students is to make a delineation between educational records and library records. Content specifically included in the curriculum through assigned reading or classroom activities should be considered educational records subject to tracking and assessment. Content accessed by the student as part of free inquiry for research topics or personal interest should be considered library records that are exempted from tracking and assessment.
Michael Robinson is an Associate Professor at the Consortium Library, University of Alaska – Anchorage. In addition to serving as chair of the ALA-IFC Privacy Subcommittee, he serves as chair of the Alaska Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.